Red Red Meat “There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight”
(Sub Pop)

Chicago underdog Red Red Meat can't miss the mark when the target is so damn undefined. And it should be difficult for critics to get any solid hits in when they're looking through a thesaurus just trying to find ways to slam the band's strum-it-out honesty.

Now here we got some broken-up, broken-down, droopy-eyed improvisation on the best dirty pillow in the Bethlehem, folks.

“There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight” starts out much like the last album, “Bunny Gets Paid.” Both releases let you know right off — just hang your head take in the modernized blues/rock/country. Don't look for obvious retro comparisons and don't expect to bounce around like you did with their Stonesy second release, the drink it, drank it, it hurt, I loved it, “Jimmywine Majestic.” That 1994 album let the band's new label, Sub Pop, know Red Red Meat was a band and not just narcoleptic roots schizophrenia. It put forth the RRM aesthetic, if in a more verse/chorus/verse approach.

Still, “Bunny” was a bit of a surprise. The album took the meandering lethargy found in parts of the first two albums and dosed it with back porch intuition. It sacked most rock pretenses and spun down beautifully.

“Manger” goes even further. Practically abandoning beginnings and endings, structure and song, leader Tim Rutilli and the gang simply tell of the ongoing American disaster — graveyard hymns sung for friend and foe.

The album is nearly an hour of splintered, backwoods, melancholic hooks waiting to happen. Most times the songs trail off like lovers' late-night conversations: Fumbling as if you don't want it to end... then there's nothing left to say.

The opener, “Sulfur,” is an articulate guitar hanging out on the couch with the rest of the sounds in the song. Then they just pass out. From there, the title track mixes gambling and religion with a subtle slide and a manic mandolin. “Brandy and rye the magpies are stirring/Lay down your last twenty dollars/Shepherds dead sober whispering numbers/There's a star above the manger tonight.” After that, the boys continue to scatter, hitting on things tested on previous albums and perfected here.

Essentially, what they've mastered is making the studio their home and figuring things out as they go along. With all the delays and found and befriended sounds, it's hard to imagine rehearsing these songs to perfection, rather than just riding them in and out and saving the middle part.

“Chinese Balls” kicks in like you'd expect a good Chicago band to do, but you can't shake that Robitussin nod. “Paul Pachal,” an eyes-closed, instrumental experiment named after a school bully, features seven mental minutes of fractured feedback and impulsive percussion. It's more a test to see how deep these futuristic blues go than it is a song.

But that's the thing with Red Red Meat, they take you on a ride where the trip is the mission and the message isn't necessarily the story being told.

Listen enough and you'll really get the vibe — Rutilli's Marlboro vocal range and nearly unintelligible phrasings often are similar from song to song. It's just that there's no sensitive, rock-demon posturing here; It's all sublime, comfortable, tense, real.

Under the right light, the songs appear as thought patterns — here and there, scary and soft, natural but untouchable. And with all the feeble rock out there — all the anger and electric guitars and important screaming people — “There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight” should help send you back to a world that's good to live and listen in. Back to a slow-paced place where you can choose your own distractions and enjoy the woozy feeling you get when no one's around but the sound of your reverb head.

By The Billy Keaggy | Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 1997i am